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In ‘Nelly & Nadine,’ Two Women in Love Survive WWII’s Horrors

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Two women walk arm in arm. One is Asian, wearing round spectacles with short-slicked back hair. The other is white, hair braided neatly around her head, wearing a tight white t-shirt and trousers.
Nadine Hwang (L) and Nelly Mousset-Vos (R), together and in love having survived World War II. (Courtesy of Wolfe Video)

On April 28, 1945, footage was taken of 2,000 female concentration camp survivors gathered at the harbor in Malmö, Sweden. Many appear remarkably relaxed, smiling and waving for the camera as it pans past them on the crowded dock. Outside of the excited mass, the camera captures more pensive faces — women whose trauma is etched on their brows, their faces worn from the horrors they’ve experienced. Among them stands a stoic Asian woman, still dressed in her striped concentration camp coat, her face an enigmatic blank.

When documentary filmmaker Magnus Gertten saw the footage of that day, he knew he wanted to find out more about as many of the women as he could. Particularly, he was desperate to find out about the mysterious woman in the striped coat. What or who was she thinking about when the camera caught her immovable gaze? Where did she end up? And did she ever find a happy ending?

An Asian woman wearing a thick striped coat and whit neck scarf knotted at her neck, stares blankly forward, her hair disheveled.
Nadine Hwang, shortly after she was liberated from Ravensbrück, the largest concentration camp for women in Germany. (‘Nelly & Nadine’)

New documentary Nelly & Nadine answers all of those questions over the course of its engrossing 90 minutes. The woman in the archival footage was named Nadine Hwang. The daughter of the Chinese ambassador to Spain, Hwang had lived proudly as a lesbian long before the war, moving in prestigious bohemian and literary circles. While incarcerated at the Ravensbrück concentration camp, she met and fell in love with a singer named Claire “Nelly” Mousset-Vos. Their relationship ultimately helped them both endure the atrocities of World War II; their deep love a powerful catalyst for survival. But standing on the dock that day, Hwang had no idea if the love of her life was even still alive, or if she would ever see her again.

The couple’s story, both during and after the war, is told in Nelly & Nadine via what they so painstakingly left behind: Super 8 home movies, personal correspondence, Hwang’s extensive photo and letter collection and, most importantly, Mousset-Vos’ vivid and heart-wrenching diaries. For decades, Hwang and Mousset-Vos’ personal effects sat in a steel box in the home of the latter’s granddaughter, Sylvie Bianchi — a woman who found herself so heartbroken by its contents, she long refused to read them in any depth. Bianchi’s decision to finally do so is at the center of Nelly & Nadine. It is her grandmother’s relationship, however, that becomes the film’s heart.

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The most impactful parts of Nelly & Nadine can be attributed to excerpts from Mousset-Vos’ extraordinary wartime diaries. Alive with vivid detail, her writings transport the viewer to every sight, smell and anxiety of living in hell on Earth. She is blunt and unflinching when it comes to conveying the true torments of concentration camp incarceration. The directness of her writing is often devastating in its simplicity. “17 women are dead,” she writes at the end of a hellish five-day train journey. “And a baby was born.”

At one point, after being transferred from Ravensbrück, Mousset-Vos describes her new location thusly:

At the top, crowning the mountain, lies the camp. Mauthausen, the antechamber of hell. We climb down a giant 186-step staircase carved into the rock. It’s the quarry. Our tomb. The air smells of typhus and corpses. You have to fight for a morsel of moldy bread, a sip of water, a place to sleep. A woman lets out a long cry of agony that sounds like a cry of pleasure. How to find the courage to survive?

Mousset-Vos’ writings make plain how the love of Hwang helped her to endure the unimaginable. She wrote of briefly snatched moments of joy when the pair could share measly bread rations and deep conversations. “I find myself looking out for her black hair beneath white scarf,” Mousset-Vos wrote shortly after meeting Hwang, “and her eyes that light up when they see me.”

At the end of the war, having both somehow made it out alive, the two corresponded by postcard and letter for a few years before they could be reunited. Once they were, they built a life together in Venezuela — a location chosen to help them erase their memories of the war. Old friends are interviewed in Nelly & Nadine about the life Hwang and Mousset-Vos shared there, a life well lived and thoroughly enjoyed. It is clear that the couple gave each other — and their friends — permission to live any way they pleased. After what they endured in the war, there was simply no other way to move forward.

Nelly & Nadine is a layered story, richly told. Yes, it offers a new telling of the war from the perspective of a supremely talented writer. And, yes, it speaks to family lineage and the legacies we leave behind. It is about the importance of finding cracks of light in relentless darkness. But above all else, it is a story of magnificent, beautiful LGBTQ love; love that was life-saving first and life-affirming later; love that was embraced and nurtured and valued above all else. And while some of the details in it have the power to devastate, the hope in Nelly & Nadine shines brighter than everything else. Something that very much reflects the relationship it’s about.

‘Nellie & Nadine’ begins streaming on June 6, 2023, and is available via Apple TV, Amazon Prime Video, Vudu and Wolfe On Demand.

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